Encyclopedia of the Blues. 2 volumes. Edited by Edward Komara. (New York: Routledge, 2006. Pp lxii (x2 [sic]) + 1208; introduction, photographs, musical notation, bibliographies, discographies, indices. ISBN 0-415-92699-8 US$295.00 (cloth).
This is a set of books that I have been waiting impatiently for with bated breath in great anticipation (you get the idea) – a broad-brush publication of this nature is certainly needed. Unfortunately, this one is not “it”. In trying to be all things to all people, the set ends up being less than the sum of its wobbly parts and a great disappointment to moi for many reasons. The editor seems not to have focussed on a specific audience and to have “shotgunned” material against the wall to see what sticks! While some errors are inevitable, too many stand out on my first runs through of the books. Since the text is not more specific in its apparent readership (folklorists and other academics?; popular culture mavens?; music industry honchos?; blues anoraks?), it hits no targets solidly and will not be truly satisfactory to any one interest group.
I have indicated in the headings above that the initial Roman-numerated section is present twice – once at the beginning of each volume: Those repeated fifty-seven pages could have been put to better use, methinks. The table of contents is also inaccurate for each volume as it reads “Entries A-Z 1” in each, rather than “Entries A-J 1” in Volume One and “Entries K-Z 557” in Volume Two. Said Table of Contents runs as follows: ”List of Entries A-Z; Thematic List of Entries; List of Contributors; Introduction; Frequently Cited Sources; Entries A-Z; Index”. The first listing seems redundant, since it merely alphabetically lists all the books’ entries with no paginations. Most of these “contents” entries do not need to be duplicated at the beginning of both volumes, in my humble estimation. And then there are errors galore in the main text, especially in the briefer entries, too many to go into here. Not to mention omissions such as Eugene “Hideaway” Bridges!
So, enough about the faults; what’s good here? Closer reading shows that there’s lots of useful “stuff” enclosed within the two sets of covers in spite of the inaccuracies of certain entries. It spreads a broader and deeper net than the late Sheldon Harris’ Blues Who’s Who, going beyond individual musicians and includes useful headings such as regions/states; musical styles and techniques; instruments; points of cultural interest; historiography; record labels; related art forms; specific “major” songs. These longer entries seem quite good, well written and researched, and are worth checking out and using. Many appropriate people have been utilized herein and much of their work is fine, so this is a reasonably useful reference, but with the aforementioned caveats.
Like Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy in “On the Water Front”, this set could’a been a contenda, up there with the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture for depth and breadth. I wish it had been. The cost of the two volumes here makes it prohibitive for most individuals – see if your local library will get a set, for it’s not without its uses. In trying to be all things to all people, and probably assembled under extreme time pressures, the Encyclopedia of the Blues just doesn’t cut it: The ideas are there, but the execution has been faulty and so a blanket endorsement is not possible. Harris is probably still the best bet overall, albeit quite outdated and more narrowly focussed; coupled with the newly-minted The Penguin Guide to Blues Recordings – the two together would also be notably cheaper. I’d love it if there were to be a second new and improved edition of this set, but I doubt the publisher will go for that as sales of this one will probably not warrant it. As Kevin Kline pointedly said in the film “A Fish Called Wanda”: “Disappointed!” Sadly, a bungled opportunity.
PETER B. LOWRY
-Harris, Sheldon. Blues Who’s Who: A Biographical Dictionary of Blues Singers. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1979.
-Russell, Tony and Chris Smith (ed.). The Penguin Guide to Blues Recordings. London; Penguin Books, 2006.
-Wilson, Charles Reagan, and William Ferris (ed). Encyclopedia of Southern Culture Chapel Hill, NC/London: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.